Category: Criminal Law

8

Taking Supermax Seriously

supermax.jpgJustice Posner’s description of a Supermax prison, in Scarver v. Litscher rekindled my discomfort with such facilities. Posner draws a clear picture of life at the prison’s “Level One” where all prisoners begin their stay and some continue for several months:

Inmates…are locked in windowless single-person cells for all but four hours of the week; the four hours are for recreation in a small windowless room not much larger than the cells. The cells are illuminated 24 hours a day so that the guards can watch the inmates, although they glance in only intermittently. The cells are not air-conditioned, and so, being windowless, they become extremely hot during the summer–the heat index sometimes rises above 100 degrees, and often above 90. The inmates are not allowed to have mechanical or electronic possessions, such as a television set, a clock, or even a watch–just one religious text, one box of legal documents, and 25 personal letters.

Perhaps it reflects my own lack of an inner life, but this sounds like hell on earth. I think I would quickly go mad in that little box. Although Level One is clearly the worst of the worst, it appears – looking over some of the prison handbooks for Level 2 – 5, available here – that life in the Supermax doesn’t get hugely better. Although Level 5 offers a small TV, you’re still locked in that room almost all day and night.

This all brings up two issues. First, is Supermax punishment so cruel that it is inherently unconstitutional? Second, even if not, should legislatures have to specifically authorize Supermax sentences for particular crimes?

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7

Double Jeopardy?

Perhaps Dan or Dan can help out a non-crimlaw guy here, because this just doesn’t make any sense to me. From CNN:

Lane insisted he was innocent for another decade and when he finally confessed to Salt Lake City police a few months ago, there was nothing the justice system could do. He had been tried and acquitted and under the “double jeopardy” provision of the U.S. Constitution could not be tried again.

So, not only did Watts find her baby murdered, not only did she stand by the man she later found out killed him, but now she also has to live knowing that he will never pay for his crime.

Is that really true? It sounds like the plot out of an Ashley Judd movie.

I’m at a bit of disavantage here — when I was a law student, my criminal law class covered very little black-letter criminal law. (We did spend a lot of time on ever-more complex self-defense hypotheticals, however). But I think I remember reading somewhere that new evidence of this sort can create some kind of exception to double jeopardy. (In this case, he lied at his first trial, but later confessed to the killing after he had been acquitted).

Is there any relevant exception to double jeopardy? To use another example: If 30 seconds post-verdict, O.J. had jumped over to a camera and yelled “haha, I did it, can’t bust me now!” — would we really be stuck with the verdict?

17

A Philadelphia Story

airlinetoy6.jpg

This story from the Philadelphia Inquirer caught my eye. (And gave me an opportunity to steal a picture from Dan’s airline screening playset post.) Janet Lee, a Bryn Mawr student, was on her way home from the holidays. At the Philadelphia Int’l Airport, she was arrested because her checked bags contained condoms full of flour, which the police mistakenly identified in two field tests as cocaine and amphetamines. According to Lee, she and hall-mates had created the bags as stress balls as an exam-time gag. The system held Lee in jail for three weeks on $500,000 bail:

Lee acted tough to protect herself. She did modern-dance moves to keep limber. Inmates saw this and gossiped: “Everyone thought I knew karate because I’m Asian.” She certainly didn’t discourage the stereotype.

Inmates saw the high volume of visitors and figured she was important. Again, she did not discourage the notion. She did not tell her cell mates that the visitors were actually volunteers from Catholic churches in Philadelphia who had taken up her cause.

The volunteers helped her hire [a lawyer, and former prosecutor, named David] Oh.

“I believed her story because things just didn’t add up,” Oh said. For one thing, Oh said, the field tests were odd because they detected the presence of not one drug but three.

“People don’t mix drugs like that,” Oh said.

First, Oh contacted Bryn Mawr and confirmed that Lee’s dorm mates had, in fact, made the condoms together during a pre-exam session they call a “hall tea.”

Then, Oh said, he called Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich, who agreed to expedite laboratory tests. Ehrlich also agreed to help seek reduced bail, Oh said. A day after the new test came back and confirmed that the substance was flour, Lee was released.

She flew home first class.

There are a few notable things about this story. The draconian D.A.’s office (all considered) gave Lee a huge break because of her connections – a social capital that most defendants do not have. It is also surprising (and heartening) that Philadelphia Airport is screening luggage well enough to catch this (potential contraband). I also wonder about the remarkably high bail set for a college student who had no prior record that we know about, and the jail authorities apparent decision not to put her into protective custody. On the other hand, I’m not surprised at all at the error with the tests. I wonder if the police department has studied the false positive rate carefully.

Needless to say, Lee has now filed a civil rights claim against the police (and probably a claim against the city for their poor drug-testing training). Given her story, the City should settle. But knowing the City Solicitor’s inflexible litigation strategy, I doubt they will anytime soon.

2

Welcome to the Blogosphere

To Joel Jacobson, and his new blog “Judging Crimes.” Jacobson, an assistant attorney general in New Mexico, has a number of great posts up already, including this empirical investigation into deterrence and the Fourth Amendment. Here is a taste:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly told us that the suppression of evidence deters wrongdoing by police. Lower court judges accept this as fact for a very good reason: the Supreme Court says so. But the rest of us can be little more skeptical. Using the sabermetric principle that if a phenomenon exists, it must inevitably show up in the statistics, I looked for evidence that the judiciary’s fourth amendment jurisprudence has had a deterrent effect.

My working hypothesis was that if the exclusionary rule has any overall tendency to deter police from making unconstitutional searches and seizures, the number of cases in which the legality of a search/seizure was challenged should have peaked relatively soon after 1961 and then gone into a steady decline. As more and more officers were deterred, it seems reasonable to suppose, ever-fewer would still need deterring.

7

Law & Order

I’m a Law & Order fan. I love all of them: Original, Criminal Intent, Special Victims, and Trial by Jury. I also like the re-runs—even when I’ve seen an episode before there are always enough twists and turns and details to get my attention.

I’ve often gone to watch scenes being filmed in lower Manhattan. A neighbor in my building is a script checker for the show and so on occasion I’ve also been able to sneak a peek at draft scripts left in the recycling bin.

Though in real life no criminal case is resolved in one hour, Law & Order is pretty good on the substance of the law. The precedents mentioned are typically real cases. The rulings by the judges (at lightening speed) are often correct. I tell my students they can learn a lot by watching.

One curiosity is that most of the judges on Law & Order are black women. This is not realistic. Even in New York City black female judges are few and far between.

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0

Markel in Slate

My friend and our former co-blogger Dan Markel has a new essay out in Slate on the death penalty that is well worth reading. Dan analogizes the recent news about wrongfully executed Ruben Cantu to the movie “The Life of David Gale.” In the essay, Dan links to his relatively new Harvard CR-CL piece about retributivism and the death penalty, which is also worth a read (although it will take somewhat longer to digest than the Slate piece.)

0

The Pretexual Prosecution of an Adult Webmaster

nopicture.jpgEric Goldman (law, Marquette) has a very interesting post about the arrest and prosecution of the operator of an adult website where users could upload photos of people having sex. Goldman writes:

On October 7, Wilson was arrested by Florida state police and charged with 301 counts of obscenity (each of 100 photos have been charged with distribution, offering to distribute and conspiring to distribute; plus a bonus felony charge of wholesale distribution). My understanding is that the subject photos were all user-uploaded and that the charges are all based on state law (not federal law).

Let’s assume the photos are truly obscene. This assumption may be questionable; the probable cause report indicates that they are extremely hard-core pornography but not out of the ordinary. But even if the photos are obscene, I simply can’t understand this prosecution. If the photos are user-uploaded, then all state anti-obscenity laws trying to hold the webmaster liable for them should be preempted by 47 USC 230.

Wilson, the website operator, also allowed military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan to load up photos of enemy corpses. Goldman writes:

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1

Dumb and Dumber

criminal2.jpgAnother entry in the annals of dumb criminals. A duo from Australia, dubbed “Dumb and Dumber” by the Australian media, robbed a bank in Vail, Colorado and made off with $130,000.

Tip: Don’t pose for photographs with your loot in hand.

0

In the Annals for Dumb Criminals

crackhouse2.jpgTip: If you run a crack house, don’t put up a sign that says “Crack House” when you’re open for business.

According to the article:

Memphis police say brazen drug dealers are behind bars after a sting operation called “Operation Blue Crush”. All is quiet at 3293 Rosamond. That’s because the alleged gang members who took over the house are in jail. Police say the suspects were so bold they advertised the fact that this was a crack house. When they were open for business, they’d flip an address sign over that read “Crack house.”

1

Update on Sober = Drunk in Washington DC

Earlier this week, I wrote a post on how people can be arrested for DUI even when they have a BAC well below the legal limit of .08. The Washington Post article I blogged about sparked a considerable public outcry, and now the DC Council is rushing to revise the law. According to a follow-up article in the Washington Post:

D.C. Council members, swamped with irate calls and threats to boycott

D.C. bars and restaurants, introduced emergency legislation yesterday

that would override the police department’s controversial and

little-known zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving.